|"...I was still close enough to the surface to stay above water just long enough for a single breath..."|
I was still worrying over how to escape the trolls who had captured me when the wagon jerked to a crawl, and I heard a lot of voices saying something. I would have thought we were making camp again, but we had been traveling only a few hours—and the wagons didn't actually stop.
One of the trolls peeked out. "Garn!" He spat. "It's the Patrol! They've spotted us!"
I heard a yell, "Cut the milk-horn loose!"
A terrific crash followed, coupled with a loud whinny, and Jerak calling my name.
"Laura! Get out of there!"
But I couldn't move. I was still bound and gagged. My heart skipped a beat as the wagon veered onto a dramatically different course and began bumping over the plain instead of the road. I bounced so hard I was almost upright a few times. At least the trolls with me could hold onto the sides of the wagon and thus keep their seats.
I heard a rattling next to us, and Griggum's rumbling bass voice.
"We're coming up on the Lake, fellas, and we need to ditch the human."
I failed to see the relation between the two, but the trolls understood. I faintly distinguished the rushing of a distant waterfall as one troll hefted my shoulders and another grabbed my ankles. They carried me to the back of the wagon, gripping me so tight that no amount of wriggling could loosen their hold. Smoothly, they lifted me up and chucked me off to the side.
As I flew through the air over a glittering blue pool, I could see at least one unicorn with a sapphire horn, and I heard a voice announce, “Halt! It is I, Undaglen, Guardian of the Lake! I command you, come forth!”
I hit the water and the sticky substance sealing my mouth dissolved immediately—just in time for me to inhale the water I was currently sinking in.
I choked and spit, but I was still close enough to the surface to stay above water just long enough for a single breath. The weight of my still-bound limbs dragged me back under. I fought and writhed as much as I could, but the rope didn’t budge. Looking at my legs, I couldn’t even see that there was a knot in it. The rope circled my legs in one continuous circle. How had the trolls tied it, then?
I was so focused on my legs that I nearly opened my mouth to scream when something large bumped against my back. The added momentum sent me sprawling headfirst toward some rocks—but my reflexes kicked in just in time and I put out my arms to steady myself. Then I had to stare at both hands before I realized what I had just done. Whatever bumped me had untied my arms!
I whirled in a circle to see if the thing was still around, and when I turned back the direction I had been facing, I saw a creature easily twice my size headed straight for me! I hastily waved my arms to try and swim away, but the thing had long arms and it caught me around the legs—and when it let go, I was free.
By now my lungs burned for breath. I could see the sunlight streaming down from the surface, but every movement just made me sink lower. I was losing strength; it was becoming harder to hold my mouth closed against the water. I saw the creature come toward me again, this time from behind, and I felt long limbs wrap around me like a blanket—a wet, fish-like blanket.
A webbed hand gripped my chin while the other smeared a leaf across my face. The leaf left behind a snot-like jelly coating on my nose and mouth. I twisted hard, and the arms finally released me as I shot away and turned back to face my captor.
I saw, but I could not comprehend. The creature before me was neither fish nor human, but a mix of both, and very tall (or long, as the case may be), too fish-like to be described in human terms, and too human-like to be dismissed as a mere fish. She had bulbous eyes, gills instead of a nose, and a mouth constantly in motion. Violet hair was piled on top of her head, bound and fastened by strands of seaweed and starfish. She maintained her position by softly waving colorful fins spanning the space between her arms and her sides. The legs were separate, but each ended in a long fin, like flippers. I banked on the creature’s desire to rescue me as I waved my hands, trying to signal that I wanted to be taken up closer to the surface.
The bulbous eyes watched me carefully, as the head tilted to one side. The body was almost fluid in motion as she twisted around to get a good look at me from all sides.
“I was under the impression that land-dwellers possessed the ability to speak,” she said abruptly.
I stopped moving; she could talk—but how was she going to know that I could, if the problem was being able to breathe underwater? I tried bobbing my head and pointing to my mouth, humming to let her know that I had a voice.
The creature blinked at me in what could only be construed (owing to the lack of eyebrows and eyelids) as annoyance. She made a rattling sound that could have been a sigh. “The uandino over your mouth enables you to breathe, crawler. If you can talk, then talk!”
My mouth flew open on its own, and I felt a sudden heaving rush of air enter my lungs—but no water. I stretched my lips as far as they would go, but the gel over my mouth did not even crack. I could breathe normally with the coating on my lips, just like she said.
My rescuer folded her arms and regarded me dubiously. “My name is Shirill, and I am a maiden in the court of Her Ladyship the Mer-Queen, whom land-dwellers know as the Lady of the Lake. Who are you and how did you come to be bound and cast into the Lake?”
A small thrill ran through me; so this is what mermaids looked like in this world!
“My name is Laura,” I said, “I’m a human, and I came to this world by mistake. I was captured by some trolls, who tied me up, and they tossed me into the Lake when the Patrol spotted them.”
Shirill gasped so hard that I could hear her gills flap closed. “A human? It has been many ages since a human has been in our midst—and the last one certainly didn’t have any business with the Lake.” She swam in a slow loop, her body forming a wide, graceful circle. “You say you are here by mistake—but perhaps you are here to unite the Phantasmians and free us from the Underworld oppression!”
This was the third time someone assumed I was here to “save the world.” First of all, that sort of a plot was so overdone I didn’t want any part of it myself; secondly, my whole goal was only to get out of this world by any means possible! I shook my head.
“I seriously doubt it,” I said. “I am not here to start a rebellion or anything like that; the unicorn I was traveling with seemed to think that this Lady of the Lake whom you serve could help me figure out how to get back to my own world. We were on our way there when the trolls waylaid us.”
Shirill was too attached to her idea to pay me any mind. “Oh, but don’t you see? You, the human, are a stranger to every creature, and so your abilities could be the key to sending the Underworlders back beneath the surface, where they came from.”
“What abilities?” I objected.
Shirill swam around behind me, reclining in the water as if on a bed. “The last human was the one to summon the Underworlders; do not all humans have the same powers?”
The perfect plan for a fantasy story unfolded in my mind: a wicked magician in search of ultimate power summoning an army of dark creatures, and an innocent hero tasked with stopping him—
I shook my head and turned away from her. “Oh no you don’t!” I said, both to myself and to the mermaid.